For my Great Villain Blogathon post, I decided to write about the character of John Milton, portrayed by Al Pacino, in The Devil’s Advocate (1997). As I mentioned in passing in another post, it seems to me that it would be hard for any “A-list” actor to pass on playing Satan in a major motion picture. After all, isn’t this the ultimate villain part, at least in North America?
First, a little background about the movie. It has been one of my favorite films since it came out in 1997. One reason is that it is about human vulnerability to narcissism (here labeled by the traditional “deadly sin” of vanity). Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves) is a criminal defense lawyer and former prosecutor who has never lost a case, whether as prosecution or defense counsel. He is living a happy life with his wife, Mary Ann (Charlize Theron), in his hometown of Gainesville, Florida, but is somewhat restless due to his ambitious nature. He has developed a ruthless style of litigation, but is somewhat ambivalent about it at the same time.
Out of the blue (or so it seems), he receives a very lucrative offer, from a large, powerful New York law firm, to act as a jury consultant for a trial in Manhattan. There he meets Milton, who (on the pretext of the favorable verdict reached with the jury Kevin helped to select) makes him a job offer, essentially to become the firm’s criminal defense department. Dazzled by the perks of this position and the opportunity to enlarge his ambitions and career as an attorney, Kevin accepts. He does not yet know that Milton is actually the human manifestation of Lucifer, whose ongoing battle against God now involves the law, lawyers, and Kevin himself. Gradually Kevin learns the truth about Milton and his law firm, but not before losing Mary Ann (who is more attuned to what is going on, which leads to her doom) in the process. In the end, he must decide whether or not to join Milton (who turns out to be his father) in his scheme to take over the world.
An actor of Al Pacino’s caliber, given a screenplay with a good plot, well-developed characters, and quality dialogue, can turn a role like John Milton into a master class in acting. Since I already knew its characters and plot well, rewatching this film allowed me to focus on Pacino and pick up on the many subtle touches that he used to foreshadow and then reveal the true identity of his character.
When Kevin and Mary Ann go to New York at the beginning of the second act, John Milton appears to be human. He’s more than a ruthless yet likeable senior law firm partner. He’s not just any kind of a shark, he’s a Great White — but still, a mortal being. Or is he? Pacino uses not just the timing and delivery of his lines, but his overall embodiment of the character (especially gestures and facial expressions) to make the viewer start to suspect that there’s more going on than meets the eye. In particular, the tone and volume of his gravelly, New York-accented voice, his variety of smiles (from emotionally empathetic to leeringly lustful) and laughs, and certain physical mannerisms (such as licking his lips) start to bring out the Lucifer in Milton. Above all, Pacino does a lot of his acting with his eyes alone. The way that John Milton looks at other characters speaks volumes.
The third act, however, is where Pacino delivers his tour de force. Many movie fans, even those who have not seen this film, are aware of the masterfully delivered speeches in which Pacino reveals the fullness of his character’s infernal nature. Probably the most famous is Pacino’s extended monologue in which he contrasts himself with God.
What is most impressive to me is how Pacino understands and embodies the deceptiveness that is the core of demonic influence. Due to free will (a big concept in this film), his character cannot force a person to do his bidding. Instead, he has to deceive others into falling into his grasp. So, even though Kevin apparently foils the Devil’s plans, Milton bounces right back, adapting his deception to the new situation that emerges at the end of the film. Pacino’s last line here is priceless.
The Great Villain Blogathon wraps up today after a week of outstanding posts by many excellent bloggers, so don’t forget to check out this collection of the baddest of the bad movie characters. Kudos to the bloggers at Speakeasy, Shadows and Satin, and Silver Screenings for putting it together!